Once, the same Denis had entered the Church of St. John in’s Hertogenbosch while the organ was playing and the sweet melody had immediately transported him and his melting heart into a sustained ecstasy. The sensation of beauty was instantly turned to religion. It is likely that it did not occur to him that in the beauty of music or of the fine arts there was something else to be admired than the holy per se.
Denis was one of those who opposed the introduction of modern polyphonic music into the church. The breaking of the voice into parts (fractio vocis) seems like the sign of a broken soul, he says, repeating an older authority; it is comparable to curled hair on a man or to pleated garments on a woman, sheer vanity. Some, who had practiced such polyphonic song had confided to him that it involved arrogance and a certain lasciviousness of mind (lascivia anima). He admits that there are pious individuals who are inspired by melodies to the most intensive contemplation and devotion. This explains why the church went so far as to permit organs. But when the artful music serves to please the ear and delight those who are present, particularly the women, it is decidedly objectionable.
This makes it evident that the medieval mind, whenever it intends to convey the nature of musical emotions, still has no other means of expression at its disposal than the vocabulary used for the sinful stirrings of the emotions, of pride, and a certain degree of lasciviousness.
Much was being written about musical aesthetics. As a rule, these tracts were based on the musical theories of antiquity, which were no longer understood; in the final analysis they tell us little about how the beauty of music was really enjoyed. Whenever they come to the point of expressing what it was that was actually found to be beautiful about music, the texts become vague and strongly resemble those dealing with the admiration of painting. In one place it is the heavenly joy that is appreciated in music, in another it is the text painting. All this helped to make musical emotions appear to be related in essence to heavenly enjoyment; a depiction of sacred entities was not at stake as it was in painting, but only a shadow of the joys of heaven themselves. When good old Molinet, who apparently loved music himself, tells us that Charles the Bold, who was known as a great lover of music, passed the time in his camp near Neuss with literature and especially with music, it is not only his rhetorical bent that causes him to jubilate: “Car musique est la résonnance des cieux, la voix des anges, la joie de paradis, l’espoir de l’air, l’organe de l’église, le chant des oyselets, la récréacion de tous cueurs tristes et désolés, la persécution et enchassement des diables.” The ecstatic element in the enjoyment of music was, of course, well known: “The power of harmonies,” Pierre d’Ailly tells us, “raptures the human soul so much to itself that it is not only elevated above other passions and cares, but even above itself.”
As in painting, the striking imitation of things was greatly admired, but the danger of seeking beauty through imitation was much greater for music. Music had already made most eager use of this means of expression for a long time. The caccia (from which the English word “catch” used for a canon comes), originally representing a hunt, is the best-known example. Olivier de la Marche says that he had heard in such a piece the yelping of dogs, the baying of hounds, and the blaring of trumpets as if one were in the forest. At the beginning of the sixteenth century the inventions of Jannequin, a student of Josquin de Prés, present hunts, the tumult of the battle of Marigiano, the market cries of Paris, “le caquet des femmes,” and the singing of birds in musical form.